Let’s face it. Social media is everywhere, and it is getting increasingly difficult to imagine a life without its presence. While it has its benefits, research into social media platforms over time has also revealed a dark side, as apps are constantly looking to increase the time you spend using them.
The problem? Multiple studies link the use of social media to a range of mental health illnesses, from depression and anxiety to confidence and body image issues. A study published in Science Direct estimates that over 210 million people worldwide suffer from social media addiction.
Why Staying Away From Social Media Is So Difficult
A 2018 study highlighted that there was a 25% increase in high schoolers that report having contemplated suicide between the years 2009, when the rate stood at 13.8%, and 2017, when the rate stood at 17.2%.
There have been attempts to curb the effects of these social media apps through the courts. However, with social media apps developing faster than the laws required to regulate them, this proves to be a difficult task.
TorHoerman Law notes that individuals who are struggling with mental health issues due to Meta’s Facebook platform could qualify to file a Facebook mental health lawsuit as well. Meta is alleged to have made its platforms addictive on purpose.
Over time, social media apps have deviated from their core purpose, now functioning as a medium of advertising, as well as a platform to promote brands.
The business model is simple. The more you use an app, the more money its owners can make. Instagram, in particular, has been found to be detrimental to mental health, with the company even finding itself as the defendant in Instagram Lawsuit cases.
The Three Steps Approach
Former employees of the likes of Google, Apple, and Facebook have imparted knowledge about a three-step format that app developers follow while building their apps to increase their usage. Coincidently, these can also make the app highly addictive.
The first is motivation. Users have to be incentivized to use the app. Over time, users of social media apps have associated opening and interacting with the app, with the release of dopamine and serotonin. This also partly explains why you find yourself picking up your phone and opening Instagram without actively deciding to do so, only to find yourself 20 posts into a doom scroll.
The second step is action. Users have to be able to load and navigate through the app seamlessly. Apps like Instagram and Titkok make sure you can reach new content with the least amount of clicks possible, making it easier for you to use the app, and reducing the likelihood of you clicking away. They also make it very easy to like, comment and react to posts.
Finally, comes the trigger. While a user should want to think about an app, its developer can also remind them. Through a vast array of notifications, our phones constantly nudge us to open the app again.
Ways Your Phone Affects Mental Health
The Fear Of Missing Out
Let’s say you manage to scour up the willpower to turn off your notifications, put your phone on silent and live in the real world. The second hurdle you will face is that while you have managed to shake the social media bug, most or all of your friends and family are still on it. This causes you to experience a fear of missing out and increases the likelihood of you going back to social media.
This fear of missing out can also contribute to mental health illnesses like anxiety and depression.
Users are Aware They Have Poor Mental Health
Users are now no longer incentivized to use the app for their benefit. They just have to. While studies show an increase in social media usage especially in the youth, they also report that these users rate their mental health to be average or poor. Despite being able to recognize the problem, users are not able to overcome it.
Internal And External Behavioural Problems
A study conducted in 2019 in the U.S found that teens who spend more than three hours a day on social media could be at a higher risk of experiencing mental health difficulties.
The study goes on to discuss participants displaying internalizing and externalizing behavioral problems. These are two broad categories of behavioral complications.
Internal complications include increased feelings of stress, anxiety, self perception issues, while external complications occur in relation to the social environment, manifesting in the form of aggression, lashing out, increased deviance.
Sleep And Mental Health
A 2021 study found a notable correlation between an increase in social media use, and a reduction in sleep. The study also went on to note that there exists a direct relation between an increase in social media use, and depression.
60% of participants said they had their phone with them in bed before they went to sleep. A slew of other studies have linked using your phone just before you go to bed to a lower quality sleep.
It can be said therefore, that social media use has a negative impact on our sleep, and a reduction in sleep time and quality in turn has a negative impact on our mental health. This effect is amplified in adolescents.
Taking Back Control of Your Mental Health
The truth is, developers will continue building apps intended to get users hooked. Here are a few things you can do to try and limit the impact your phone and social media apps have on your mental health.
In March of 2023, China announced a one-hour limit on the use of TikTok for users under 18. While government action can help, here are some things you can do yourself.
Some Apps Are Your Friends
While social media apps can aggravate mental health issues, others can help limit their effect. You can download apps that limit your social media usage per day. Once you exceed the limit, you won’t be allowed to reuse the limited app until the next day. You can use this to gradually reduce your social media time.
A Human Touch
As we pointed out, it is hard to leave social media due to the fear of missing out. Prioritizing real-world relationships could potentially help overcome this fear as you find yourself enjoying activities with real people around you every day.
Studies have shown that human interaction can keep mental illnesses like depression, stress and anxiety at bay. Conversely, spending more time on social media apps in the isolation of your home/room has been linked with an increase in these very mental illnesses.
Spending time with real people can help make all the difference when it comes to your mental well being.
Turn Off Notifications
Remember the incidental interactions we mentioned earlier? By turning off your notifications for certain apps, you can limit the amount of time your phone can nudge you to open an app.
There have been numerous instances of social media having detrimental effects on our mental health. A more accurate claim, however, would be that excessive use of social media affects mental health.
While developers continue to find ways to skirt guidelines and make their apps more addictive, users can take steps to limit their usage, and urge authorities to put in place checks and balances to limit the effect social media has on mental health.